03 September, 2016

The luck of late August

I often experience somewhat of a burnout when it comes to my enthusiasm for finding moths at this time of year. The excitement of daytime sweep netting amongst fresh vegetation in May and June is a distant memory, and with bright street lights illuminating the garden and such small catches as a result, putting the moth trap out can quickly become a chore with little reward.

That said, the last few weeks of August have produced some fantastic garden rarities in years past. In 2011, Surrey's 'first' Jersey Mocha greeted me as I emptied the moth trap on the morning of 30th, then in 2013 another county first appeared in the form of the beautiful and scarce Ethmia quadrillella.

Alas, this year's end of August rarity wasn't a first for Surrey but still had me squealing (perhaps a little too loudly for 2am) when it dropped into the trap on the night of 27th. Cydia amplana is a transient resident along the south coast of England, but only occasionally appears this far inland. An impressive influx in 2012 saw a small number of moths turn up in the county, but I'd never considered it a potential addition to the all-important garden list.

Cydia amplana

It shared the trap with a couple of its more regularly encountered garden relatives: Cydia pomonella and Celypha striana.

Blasts from the past: Jersey Mocha (top) and Ethmia quadrillella (below) aren't likely to reappear in the garden anytime soon.

29 August, 2016


First time (and one time) visitors to this blog could be forgiven for reading the title 'Bill's Birding' and wrongly assuming that I post about birds here. Of course this hasn't been the case for a very long time. I'm not proud of the fact that I haven't posted a photo of a bird here since April 2016, but it is what it is. I still enjoy birding as much as I ever have, but I now fulfil that enjoyment without lugging a telephoto lens around with me wherever I go, worried that I might miss the 'perfect shot' should I leave home without it.

That's not to say that I don't still look out for photographic opportunities. These loitering Mallards came to me during my time of need at the eerily beautiful Silent Pool deep in the Surrey Hills, when moths were nowhere to be seen, and allowed me to take their photograph. I was only carrying a wide-angle lens at the time but the results are quite arty-farty, and by posting them on the blog I'm fulfilling my yearly quota of two bird posts.

26 August, 2016

Maritime flowers

Visitors to Skokholm during high summer would have a hard time overlooking the array of wildflowers that carpet the cliff tops. At this time of year Sea Mayweed and Ragwort dominate at ground level much to the delight of pollinating insects. 

A species of bee in the Colletes genus enjoying Sea Mayweed - a particularly hard genus to identify to species level.

 Ragwort is a common sight on the cliff tops, as are the Cinnabar caterpillars that feed on the plant

Back in 2014, Golden-rod was abundant across Skokholm's grassland, with Ragwort growing in only very low densities. In the past couple of years the tides have changed. Population of Golden-rod seems to have crashed and now only isolated clumps still thrive around the farm and on The Neck, whilst Ragwort is everywhere.


A whole host of smaller plants add to the cliff-top colour spectrum at this time of year.

Creating a carpet of pink across the island's coastline in early-summer, by August only a few Thrift plants remain in flower


Field Pansy and Scarlet Pimpernel cope well with the arid conditions of Skokholm's rabbit-grazed dry grassland

Bog Pimpernel grows amongst Marsh Pennywort in the wetter flushes and streams

20 August, 2016

Returning to Skokholm

A couple of weeks back I received a message from Ian Beggs, a regular guest at Skokholm Bird Observatory who stayed there for two weeks whilst I was assistant warden. He was driving back to Skokholm for a week of bird ringing and wondered if I wanted to fill up a spare seat in his car. There were no two ways about it, returning to Skokholm has been top on my list of things to do ever since I left the island two years ago. A quick exchange with wardens Richard & Giselle and it turned out I had a bed to sleep on for the week!

Having spent a summer and half an autumn on the island in 2014, Skokholm has a very special place in my heart, and the whole visit was a trip down memory lane. Everything was where I'd left it, bar a couple of humongous boulders which had dislodged and tumbled down into the sea. After a couple of days of mist, wind and horizontal rain, we were basking in sunshine for the remainder of the week, intensifying the warm colours of Skokholm's Old Red Sandstone and giving the island's cliffs their characteristic red-brown hue.

It was great to be back, catching up with old friends and making new ones. There's never a dull moment on the island, with fellow guests including several BTO seabird researchers who were fitting radio-tracking devices onto Storm-petrels, and award-winning wildlife photographer Sam Hobson who had come to Skokholm with a vivid image in his mind of the perfect Manx Shearwater photograph to capture.

Every square inch of Red Sandstone on Skokholm is carpeted in various maritime lichens, some being extremely rare like the delicate Golden Hair Lichen below...

Sam and I discovered a Basking Shark just off the lighthouse cliffs one afternoon - the first I'd ever seen and a rare sight around Pembrokeshire waters. We watched it slowly cruise east towards the mainland, dorsal fin and tail barely breaking the surface as it battled against the turbulant sea in an effortless and unperturbed manner. Unfortunately, by the time I'd mustered up enough phone reception to alert the other islanders the shark was moving into bright glistening waters directly below a hot sun and we lost sight of it as the first 'twitchers' arrived.

Basking Shark twitch

North Haven

Looking out towards Pembrokeshire - Skomer on the left, Marloes on the right and my feet in the middle

Painted white stones mark the various paths that run across the island

The farm complex at sunset

30 July, 2016

Breckland moths

I opted for a change of scenery this week and made the drive up to Suffolk to visit my grandparents. Conveniently for me, they live in a wildlife-rich part of the county known as the Brecks; a unique landscape characterised by low-lying grassy heaths, big skies, sandy sun-parched soils and crooked Scot's Pine trees. Their garden backs out onto classic Breckland habitat, and I set up a couple of moth traps there during my stay with them...

 Latticed Heath

 Pediasia contaminella

 Epiblema foenella

Beautiful China-mark

Brown China-mark

 Mere Wainscot

Antler Moth

True Lover's-knot

Apotomis lineana

 Catoptria pinella

Brown-line Bright-eye

But apart from that, I didn't really catch anything.

22 July, 2016

Jeans and heat

Stigmella lapponica

Stigmella luteella

Stigmella continuella

The scorching daytime heat in recent days has sent most animals scarpering for the shade, as I found out when I decided to visit Esher Common in 30°C midday heat on Tuesday - wearing a pair of baggy jeans. I soon realised that the protection given by jeans against horseflies wasn't outweighing the uncomfortable level of torridity below the waist, especially given that there were no horseflies on the wing in the heat. I think I've learned my lesson for next time.

A couple of Brilliant Emeralds were hunting in the shaded corner of Black Pond and Small Red Damselflies were everywhere, but the only things willing to oblige for photographs were a handful of leaf-mining Stigmella moths. A bit of rummaging around resulted in three different species, all quite easily distinguished from each other using small differences in the structure and contents of their feeding patterns.

19 July, 2016

Emperor in the oaks

I recently managed to have a catch up with Dave Boyle, ex-warden on Skomer back in the UK briefly to renew his visa before heading out to the Chatham Islands to co-ordinate conservation efforts for the endemic Chatham Petrel. Dave was keen to catch up with the enigmatic Purple Emperor whilst back in the country, and the offer of a lift was too tempting for me to resist.

We arrived at Alice Holt Forest just as the first rays of morning sunlight began to scatter through the trees, warming up the woodland ride along which Purple Emperors are known to descent down from their usual haunt high in the mature oaks to feed on salts kicked up from the path. In the previous few days, we'd caught wind of news from the forest that Emperors were actively feeding on the ground, perching on people's shoes and even landing on the head of an unsuspecting dog, so hopes were high that we'd be treated to a good display.

After a chilly start, by mid-morning the forest had heated up considerably, enticing White Admiral, Silver-washed Fritillary and Purple Hairstreak onto the wing at canopy level. Every large butterfly silhouetted against the sky had us craning our necks upwards in the hope that it was a Purple Emperor, but after a couple of hours standing in the 'hotspot' area without any luck, it became apparent that we needed a new strategy, and so we split up to cover more ground.

I retraced our steps towards the car, and it wasn't long before I caught a glimpse of a large butterfly effortlessly weaving in and out of the oak trees above me; gliding and swerving erratically in a manner that I'd never seen before from a butterfly. There was no doubting it - a Purple Emperor! I called Dave over, and he managed to fire off a couple of photographs with his telephoto lens, including this stunner:

Dave managed to perfectly encapsulate our typical views of the Emperor in this photo! 

Understandably, the Emperor was more interested in defending its patch of tree from rival males than worrying about providing us with a photographic opportunity, but every now and again it would take a rest on a leaf; catching the sun and showing off the stunning iridescent purple markings on the upperside of the wing.

Satisfied with captivating if tantalising views of Purple Emperor, we headed to the nearby Hankley Common - one of Surrey's finest examples of lowland heathland - and no sooner had we started walking than Dave calmly announced that he'd noticed a Sand Lizard basking amongst the heather in front of us. Having searched unsuccessfully for them on previous family holidays to Dorset, it took a double-take before I clocked that I was finally watching one of the UK's rarest reptiles in Surrey - only a few feet away!

Of course, I couldn't leave without a bit of micro-moth action...

 Ancylis uncella

 Sophronia semicostella

Aristotelia ericinella

10 July, 2016

What now?

All good things have to come to an end and I left Worcester last week on the morning that our house contract expired, bound for Surrey in a car that seemed to be packed full with ten times as much stuff than I arrived with. My university adventure has sped by, and despite often getting away with the bare minimum, my moth-related dissertation went down surprisingly well with the powers that be, and I've come away from it all with a first class honours degree in Conservation Ecology.

Moving home after three years of university and knowing that I have nothing separating me from the working world feels unsettling. I'm gutted to be leaving Worcester and all the great people I met there, but as has been reminded to me by the inevitable "so what are your plans?" conversation starters, now is as good a time as any to start considering possible paths to follow post-graduation.

I've got a few ideas in the works. The Natural History Museum's ID Trainers for the Future programme has intrigued me ever since it was first devised back in 2014 and I'm keen to apply for the final year of the scheme, even if it will be immensely sought after. Ecological consultancy, particularly as a seasonal field surveyor, is also something I'm looking into pursuing in the short-term, but if all else fails, postgraduate study is still on the cards if I can find the right Masters course for me. I'm already knee-deep in debt, so further loan accumulation won't be a shock to the system and I doubt I'll be in a position to start paying it back in the near (or distant!) future.

Ecology is my passion, but turning it into a profession is going to take persistence. Spilling out the ideas that have been whirling around in my head into a blog post is somewhat reassuring to my conscience that I haven't hit a loose end, and that there are opportunities around the corner. In the meantime, I'll carry on doing what I love. Wildlife will always provide me with endless fascination, and I'll try as hard as I can to make a living out of it.

Lace Border

Chalk Carpet

In other news, the south-facing slopes of the North Downs can be extremely productive for moths at this time of year, as I found out when I stopped off at White Down back on Thursday.

Argyresthia brockeella

Pempelia dilutella

Pyrausta ostrinalis

Argyresthia pruniana

Wild Strawberry